A group of scientists from all over the EU have succeeded in inventing a new autonomous robot that is able to identify different types of textiles and successfully sort and fold clothes by itself.
Dexterous Blue, built in a laboratory at Glasgow University, is the result of the three-year-long EU-funded Clothes Perception and Manipulation (CloPeMa) project worked on by researchers from Scotland, Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic.
The 8ft-tall robot features robot has a pair of digital cameras for eyes and two robot arms with grippers for hands.
The grippers are armed with a multitude of sensors, such as tiny microphone "ears" that enable the robot to listen to the sound of the fabric brushing against the grippers and determine the weave, weight and density of the material.
So far, advances in artificial intelligence have made it possible for robots to understand and carry solid objects and liquids, but flowing fabrics have proved to be much harder for them to process.
"You try folding clothes with a pair of pliers in each hand – it's bloody difficult," Dr Paul Siebert, a computer scientist with Glasgow University who led the project, told the Independent.
In order to make Dexterous Blue possible, the scientists had to break down what senses humans use to pick up and fold fabrics, which include vision and how our minds understand depth sensing.
Instead, the researchers programmed the computer to treat a mound of clothing as a type of mountain and then separate that mountain into individual shapes. By identifying each different type of fabric, such as a smooth silk or a rougher, denser denim, the computer then understands through its sensors how much pressure to apply when folding the clothes.
The CloPeMa project has now ended but the researchers hope to secure a further grant to continue their research.
Siebert predicts that robots like Dexterous Blue could be implemented in households and manufacturing within the next decade, and he is especially hopeful that the technology could be used to return textile manufacturing to Scotland.
He told the BBC: "Perhaps the most immediate and serious application is onshoring - how to be able to produce perhaps small runs of custom clothing affordably without having to send it to the other side of the world.
"So you reduce carbon footprint, you increase profitability and you bring textile manufacturing back to Scotland."